Translated by prize-winning novelist David Mitchell and his wife Keiko Yoshida, The Reason I Jump, a book written by Naoki Higashida when he was 13 years of age, has become a summer bestseller following universally enthusiastic reviews. In his introduction, Mitchell (who has a son with autism) explains that Higashida (now 21), for whom ‘spoken communication’ is ‘pretty much impossible’, spells out words on a Japanese alphabet grid, which a ‘helper at his side then transcribes’.
For Mitchell - and indeed for many parents and other readers - the main appeal of Higashida’s account is that it ‘unwittingly discredits the doomiest item of received wisdom about autism - that people with autism are anti-social loners who lack empathy with others’. Mitchell argues that ‘emotional poverty and aversion to company’ are not symptoms of autism, but consequences of a ‘lockdown on self-expression’. He endorses Higashida’s repeated assertions that though his feelings are the same as everyone else’s, his difficulty lies in finding a way to express them.
It is understandable that this view should be welcome to parents who are troubled by the apparent aloofness of their autistic children. The Reason I Jump reveals one autistic boy who expresses a high level of emotional intelligence. Indeed, Higashida seems to have an extraordinary ability to write authoritatively about not only his own feelings, but also about those of other people with autism and non-autistic people. But whether this account ‘debunks the myth’ that people with autism lack empathy, as Mitchell claims - on the basis of this single case - remains contentious.
Studies of children with autism suggest that a lack of empathy is a manifestation of a wider difficulty of seeing the world from someone else’s point of view - having a ‘theory of mind’. In a famous study published in 1985, Simon Baron Cohen and colleagues applied the ‘Sally-Anne test’ to 60 children (some with autism, some with Down’s syndrome and some ‘clinically normal’) to measure their capacity to attribute false beliefs to others. The results were significant, but not categorical: around 80 per cent of children with autism ‘failed’ the test, while 80 per cent of children without autism (whether or not they had learning difficulties) ‘passed’ the test.
Thus around one in five of the children with autism had some capacity for identifying with others - while a similar proportion of children who were ‘normal’ or had Down’s syndrome had some impairment in their ‘theory of mind’. These results confirm the widespread experience that, though many children with autism have difficulties in emotional relationships, others may display high levels of affective engagement and interaction (and that some children who are not autistic may experience difficulties in this area).